First Things First: 2020

In amongst recent events, maybe for good reason, I missed that a new First Things First manifesto was launched in May. A more radical and critical version, and one that certainly gets my signature.

This time around, as well as signing your support, you can help to rewrite the manifesto itself by submitting your opinions. There are also links to the history of the manifesto over its previous iterations of 1964, 2000 and 2014, and links to resources to help support the conscious designer.

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Mainstream discussions on graphic design

Mainstream media doesn’t often do graphic design, and when it does it rarely does it seriously. Preference is more often given over to art, architecture, interior design, photography and fashion.

On the odd occasion when an appropriately critical article does appear, (one that does not claim that the journalist’s 6 year old daughter could have done a better job at designing a logo), then graphic design as a discipline is not mentioned. Take this report from November 2019 about Facebook’s rebrand, which covers the topics of typography, colour, semiotics and visual identity. In the post’s category tags, technology and business are mentioned, but graphic design and typography are not. Articles around this time from the same publication about art and architecture did have accompanying discipline tags.

It was therefore refreshing to read a serious discussion in The Observer last weekend about the government’s visual approach to imparting important information to the public about Covid-19: The UK government’s coronavirus strategy: shoddy by design?

Interviewing Simon Esterson, art director and co-owner of Eye Magazine, and Eliza Williams of Creative Review—two of the most prominent graphic design publications in Britain—the piece discusses how UK government sanctioned visuals fail in communicating their desired message, and at times, send mixed messages.

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Insidiousness

In response to the worldwide epidemic of COVID-19 there is an inevitability to the words …And Wash Your Hands, replacing …And Carry On, as the coda to Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Given that news of the spread of the virus has the ability to produce widespread panic, any populist measures to get health messages across to stem a pandemic should be welcomed. However, on any mention of that original poster, I can not help but be reminded of its insidious nature.

For those unfamiliar with the origin of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, it was meant to be kept in storage and only rolled out across Britain in the event of a Nazi occupation. The premise being that we should all accept our new rulers and maintain the British notion of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, and simply get on with our daily lives. As an avowed anti-fascist, such a sentiment is an anathema to me.

Just how insidious the original Keep Calm poster is, was bought home to me last week when listening to Cerys Matthews interview the children’s book author Michael Rosen on her Sunday morning BBC 6music show. He was discussing his book The Missingin which he investigates his family history and those members of it who went missing during the Second World War from occupied countries, and specifically France. He recounted the tale of coming across police reports that detailed how officers of the French Gendarmerie went to his father’s uncle’s house in 1944, at 2:30 in the morning, and removed his great uncle in order to hand him over to the Nazis. He had committed no crime—he was arrested simply for the sole reason that he was Jewish.

Rosen spoke about what troubled him the most was the legality of the situation, and how these officers where just following orders. While the holocaust was an illegal act, like many other Nazi atrocities, what happened in the early hours of that morning in 1944 was legal. Given that Rosen’s relation was deported and never seen again, he goes on to say that even though the police were carrying out their duty, they were in fact conspirators to murder. This, in effect, was the French police keeping calm and carrying on. (You can listen to Michael Rosen talk about The Missing on 6music via this link—starts at around the 01:10:40 mark.)

It made me ask myself, as I listened to Rosen’s words, how the same story would have played out in Britain had we become occupied by Nazis in the 1940s. With people following the advice of keeping calm and carrying on, I suspect exactly the same would have happened. Such a depressing thought made me wonder if the poster really needs an additional line of bracketed text to make it more accurate and alert people to its insidious nature: Keep Calm and Carry On, (unless you happen to be Jewish, a gypsy, homosexual, a communist, or any other ‘undesirable’ deemed in need of eradication from society under fascist ideology, in which case you need to be very wary of a knock on the door in the middle of the night and of those who you might think are there to protect you).

Not so catchy though, is it!

Mainly Museums: PHM

PHM_Banners

I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.

The article itself is an expanded rewrite of a Field Readings’ post I wrote about the People’s History Museum after I visited many years ago. The new version was first published on Mainly Museums website in July 2019.

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Proposing the Graphic Commons

This text was first published as a pamphlet of the same name in August 2017. It is republished here for the first time online. Copies of the original pamphlet, as a numbered limited edition of 300, are still available on request. Please get in contact if you would like a copy.

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This essay introduces the term Graphic Commons as an identifier with which to discuss graphic design within shared public environments. It sets out why a new linguistic term in contemporary graphic design discourse is required, and situates this as part of wider discussions surrounding urbanism and social responsibility.

Much has changed since Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration that: “…there is no architectural or urbanistic criticism on a par with the criticism of art, literature, music and theatre.” (1991, p92) Some 43 years later urbanism is studied in renowned academic centres such as University College London’s UrbanLab. However, graphic design as a discipline is often overlooked as part of ongoing critical urban dialogues. While anti-advertising rhetoric is in rude health within academic, design and political circles, advertising remains its focus. Although a critique of advertising is an important aspect of the Graphic Commons, and therefore appropriate to discuss under the term’s usage, this proposal considers a much wider remit of study. As Lefebvre stated: “There would certainly seem to be a need for such a criticism… We are talking, after all, of the setting in which we live.” (1991, p92)

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Common affairs

The state of design criticism, it could be argued, has never been in better shape. There are the big guns, such as Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand’s printed compilation of fifteen years of online discourse at the Design Observer with Culture Is Not Always Popular. Likewise, AIGA’s Eye On Design magazine which covers topics interrogated on a given theme, (see previous Field Readings post Thoughts on discussions on criticism). Mike Monteiro’s recent Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, is an accessible takedown of poor design choices and the importance of ethics to design decisions, while Mode of Criticism‘s self-titled publication is a diversely rich academic and theoretical critique of design in a time of neoliberalism.

One publication that caught my eye recently that I wanted to specifically highlight is the House of Common Affairs journal. It comes out of a forum held at the Royal College of Art in London, and moderated by the journal’s editor Paula Minelgaite, that sought to question the relationship between creative practice, current affairs and the way information is communicated to the general public. The journal specifically looks to discuss Fourth Estate utopias.

An image of the House of Common Affairs journal cover
Image © Paula Minelgaite

In the introduction of issue one, Minelgaite says: “HOCA journal provides an opportunity to challenge the niche and yet popular field that exists in the overlap between the arts and journalism. HOCA attempts to address the issues it presents to its readers by avoiding elitist design snobbery that perpetuates discrimination, dogmatism and self-righteousness. It does this this by moving the project outside the RCA and inviting a more diverse range of voices into the conversation.”

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Led by donkeys

In living through the nightmare that is, (possibly), the final stages of the UK being in the European Union, it is difficult to see outside of the political, media and social storm that is raging around us. Looking back on this post, after whatever Brexit becomes, readers will, I suspect, be aghast at just what the British public have allowed to take place in their name. Amidst the turmoil though, there is a beacon of hope that is lightening the depressing situation by poking a finger in the ribs of contemptuous politicians. That finger poking is coming from a group calling itself Led By Donkeys.

Image of a quote by David Cameron posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

Over a pint in early January 2019, four friends discussed the idea of using billboards to quote politicians contradictory words about Brexit back at them. With MPs using Twitter as an immediate way to score points over their rivals with quick soundbite statements, the four realised they would have plenty of examples to choose from. As the talk of this being a humorous prank continued, they convinced themselves to look into it further. After some research, they found that £300 would pay for the printing of 4 billboards and the equipment they would need to hang them. Clubbing together, they decided to make the pub banter joke a reality.

Image of a quote by Jacob Rees-Mogg posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

As working people with families to support, after their first foray into the night-time manoeuvres of illicit flyposting, they realised they couldn’t afford to keep this up, nor risk arrest for covering over other’s paid for adverts. So they decided to go legitimate and launched a Crowdfunder campaign, thinking they would be lucky to get the £10,000 limit they had set for themselves. With a Twitter feed promoting what they were doing, it only took 3 hours to raise an incredible £50,000. Very quickly they realised that they had hit upon a hugely popular idea.

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Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.

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This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.

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Reclaim the sheets

While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.

Cover

Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.

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